Bespoke Processors Might Soon Power Your Artisanal Devices

Modern microprocessors are a marvel of technological progress and engineering. At less than a dollar per unit, even the cheapest microprocessors on the market are orders of magnitude more powerful than their ancestors. The first commercially available single-chip processor, the Intel 4004, cost roughly $25 (in today’s dollars) when it was introduced in 1971.

The 4-bit 4004 clocked in at 740 kHz — paltry by today’s standards, but quite impressive at the time. However, what was remarkable about the 4004 was the way it shifted computer design architecture practically overnight. Previously, multiple chips were used for processing and were selected to just meet the needs of the application. Considering the cost of components at the time, it would have been impractical to use more than was needed.

That all changed with the new era ushered in by general purpose processors like the 4004. Suddenly it was more cost-effective to just grab a processor of the shelf than to design and manufacture a custom one – even if that processor was overpowered for the task. That trend has continued (and has been amplified) to this day. Your microwave probably only uses a fraction of its processing power, because using a $0.50 processor is cheaper than designing (and manufacturing) one tailored to the microwave’s actual needs.

Anyone who has ever worked in manufacturing, or who has dealt with manufacturers, knows this comes down to unit cost. Because companies like Texas Instruments makes millions of processors, they’re very inexpensive per unit. Mass production is the primary driving force in affordability. But, what if it didn’t have to be?

Professors [Rakesh Kumar] and [John Sartori], along with their students, are experimenting with bespoke processor designs that aim to cut out the unused portions of modern processors. They’ve found that in many applications, less than half the logic gates of the processor are actually being used. Removing these reduces the size and power consumption of the processor, and therefore the final size and power requirements of the device itself.

Of course, that question of cost comes back into play. Is a smaller and more efficient processor worth it if it ends up costing more? For most manufacturers of devices today, the answer is almost certainly no. There aren’t many times when those factors are more important than cost. But, with modern techniques for printing electronics, they think it might be feasible in the near future. Soon, we might be looking at custom processors that resemble the early days of computer design.


Take the Blue Pill and Go Forth

Forth has a long history of being a popular hacker language. It is simple to bootstrap. It is expressive. It can be a very powerful system. [jephthal] took the excellent Mecrisp Forth and put it on the very inexpensive STM32 “blue pill” board to create a development system that cost about $2. You can see the video below.

If you have thirty minutes, you can see just how easy it is to duplicate his feat. The blue pill board has to be programmed once using an STM32 programmer. After that, you can use most standard Forth words and also use some that can manipulate the low-level microcontroller resources.

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MagSafe Power Bank from Scrap

Just a few short years ago, it was possible to find scrapped lithium batteries for free, or at least for very cheap. What most people at the time didn’t realize is that a battery with multiple cells might go bad because only one cell is bad, leaving the others ready for salvaging. Now it’s not a secret anymore, but if you can manage to get your hands on some there’s a lot of options for use. [ijsf] took a step further with this hack, taking a few cells from a Panasonic battery and wrangling them into a MagSafe-capable power bank for a Mac.

The real hack wasn’t scavenging batteries, however, it was getting the MagSafe to signal the computer to use power from the battery bank to run the computer only, and not to use any of that energy for charging the computer’s internal batteries. This is achieved by disabling the center MagSafe pin, which is the computer’s communication line to the power adapter. After that, the battery bank could be programmed to behave properly (a feat in itself for lithium batteries) and the power bank was successfully put into operation.

Not only was this hack a great guide for how to repurpose cells from a “dead” battery, it’s also an unparalleled quick reference for any work that might need a MagSafe connector. Of course, if you’re going to work with these chargers, make sure that you’re using one that isn’t a cheap clone.

All the Hardware Badges of DEF CON 25

Hardware is the future. There is no better proof of this than the hardware clans that have grown up around DEF CON, which in recent years has become known as Badgelife. I was first drawn to the custom hardware badges of the Whiskey Pirates at DC22 back in 2014. Hardware badges were being made by several groups at that time but that was mainly happening in isolation while this year the badge makers are in constant contact with each other.

A slack channel just for those working on their own DEF CON badges sprung up. This served as tech support, social hour, and feature brainstorming for all on the channel. In the past badges were developed without much info getting out during the design process. This year, there was a huge leap forward thanks to a unified badgelife API: the badge makers colluded with each on a unified communcations protocol. In the multitude of images below you frequently see Rigado modules used. These, and some others using different hardware, adopted a unified API for command and control, both through makers’ “god mode” badges, and for wireless gaming between participant badges.

I was able to get into the badge makers meetup on Thursday of DEF CON. What follows is the result of a frantic few hours trying to get through the sheer volume of badges and people to share with you all the custom hardware on display. One thing is for sure — there were literally thousands of custom badges built and sold/distributed during DEF CON. I can’t wait to see what the artisanal hardware industry will look like in five years time.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Six Axis Robotic Arm With Fingertip Control

If you were a child of the 1980s whose fascination extended to the contents of your local Radio Shack store, you may remember the Armatron robot arm as a particular object of desire. It was a table top robot arm operated not by motors or a microcontroller, but by a clever set of gears directed manually from a pair of joysticks. If you took a look at it with an eye to control from your 8-bit home computer you were likely to be disappointed, but nevertheless it was an excellent toy.

The Armatron may be long gone, but if you hanker for a similar device you should take a look at [3D Meister]’s finger controlled six axis arm. This is an arm similar to the Armatron in size, but with far more capabilities. Control is via cable loops to sliders at the arm’s base, and in addition to the usual arm movements there is an extra loop which can be used to operate any of a selection of tools including a gripper, a magnet, and a clipper. The video below the break shows the arm in action, and for the faint-hearted it should be noted that it contains the gratuitous death of some innocent plants.

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Hack Your Memory

Imagine a fire hydrant being lifted high into the air by a large helium balloon. It goes higher and higher, but suddenly gas starts to leak out of the nozzle, which makes it sound like it’s trying to talk… but with a distinct lisp. A colorful bumblebee then lands on the balloon, licks it, and says “really yum!”  Then the bee takes out its stinger and bores on to the balloon. It pops, causing the fire hydrant to come crashing down. It smashes into a military jeep causing a massive explosion… as if it had been destroyed by a car bomb. Fortunately, the owner of the jeep, a general, was out on his rowing boat at the time. He likes to row his boat at night, and is known as the “night-rowing general” around the base. He was rowing with a bit more exertion than usual, and had to don an oxygen mask to help him breath. But the mask was full of fluoride, which turned his teeth bright neon colors.

You’re probably wondering what the hell you just read. Maybe you’re thinking the author had a stroke. Has the site been hacked? Maybe it’s a prank? What if I told you that you’ve just memorized the first 10 elements of the periodic table.

The Night-Rowing-General via Memorize Academy
  • Fire hydrant – Hydrogen
  • Helium balloon – Helium
  • Lisp – Lithium
  • Bee says “really yum” – Beryllium
  • Bee “Bores on” – Boron
  • Car bomb – Carbon
  • The night-rowing-general – Nitrogen
  • Oxygen mask – Oxygen
  • Fluoride – Florine
  • Neon teeth – Neon

Much of your memory is stored in the form of associations. Encoding things you need to remember into a silly story takes advantage of this fact. The memory of a ‘night-rowing-general’ is already in your head. You can see him in the theater of your mind… rowing his boat under a black sky… the silver stars on his green hat reflecting the moonlight. Associating this visual representation of the night-rowing-general with the term ‘Nitrogen’ is very easy for your brain to do.

You’re probably already familiar with this type of learning. Does “Bad Boys Run Over Yellow Gardenias Behind Victory Garden Walls” ring a bell?  It’s nothing new. In fact, storing memories in the form of mental images was the preferred memorization method of the scholars in ancient times. Today, it has allowed people to perform staggering feats of memorization. Want to know how [Akira Haraguchi] was able to memorize 111,700 digits of Pi?

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Neural Nets in the Browser: Why Not?

We keep seeing more and more Tensor Flow neural network projects. We also keep seeing more and more things running in the browser. You don’t have to be Mr. Spock to see this one coming. TensorFire runs neural networks in the browser and claims that WebGL allows it to run as quickly as it would on the user’s desktop computer. The main page is a demo that stylizes images, but if you want more detail you’ll probably want to visit the project page, instead. You might also enjoy the video from one of the creators, [Kevin Kwok], below.

TensorFire has two parts: a low-level language for writing massively parallel WebGL shaders that operate on 4D tensors and a high-level library for importing models from Keras or TensorFlow. The authors claim it will work on any GPU and–in some cases–will be actually faster than running native TensorFlow.

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